Mekong Review

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The third issue of the Mekong Review is out. Will secular saint Aung San Suu Kyi face a lonely old age? Is Pulitzer-winning Nguyen Than Viet, author of The Sympathizer, a novel, and Nothing Ever Dies, memoirs, the true heir to Graham Greene? Does Southeast Asia needs more Silkworms? (Answer: yes).


…Vietnam was a very literary war, producing an immense library of fiction and nonfiction. Among all those volumes, you’ll find only a handful (Robert Olen Butler’s “A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain” comes to mind) with Vietnamese characters speaking in their own voices.

Hollywood has been still more Americentric. In films like “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon,” the Vietnamese (often other Asians portraying Vietnamese) are never more than walk-ons whose principal roles seem to be to die or wail in the ashes of incinerated villages.

Which brings me to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s remarkable debut novel, “The Sympathizer.” Nguyen, born in Vietnam but raised in the United States, brings a distinct perspective to the war and its aftermath. His book fills a void in the literature, giving voice to the previously voiceless while it compels the rest of us to look at the events of 40 years ago in a new light.

But this tragicomic novel reaches beyond its historical context to illuminate more universal themes: the eternal misconceptions and misunderstandings between East and West, and the moral dilemma faced by people forced to choose not between right and wrong, but right and right. The nameless protagonist-narrator, a memorable character despite his anonymity, is an Americanized Vietnamese with a divided heart and mind. Nguyen’s skill in portraying this sort of ambivalent personality compares favorably with masters like Conrad, Greene and le Carré.

Serious praise: we hear about Southeast Asia overwhelmingly from the outside; where is the fiction about the lives of Khmer-Americans deported back to the homeland they never knew, for example?

lady-and-the-generals.jpgThe piece on Suu Kyi is a review of Peter Popham’s recent biography, The Lady and the Generals: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Freedom. Essential point: the people adore her but the generals don’t, and if she loses the adoration factor it’s hard to see a soft landing.

[T]he run-up to the historic election in Myanmar, last November that swept the Aung San
Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD)
to power was punctuated by long-time NLD activists complaining of being side-lined or simply dropped by their leader. More damaging to her reputation globally has been the criticism by the Western media, as well as by fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner the Dalai Lama, for supposedly turning a blind eye to the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya minority.

Then there’s her haughty and authoritarian style. She declared before the 2015 election that she would be “above” whoever takes the presidency that she craves, but is barred from by the army-written constitution because her two children are British citizens.

Political life is only going to get harder for Aung San Suu Kyi.

Indeed. And the loss of saint-hood is a given – politics is like that, just ask Tony. (Which Tony? Any Tony; Tony seems to be a very unlucky name for politicians).

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Elsewhere, Khac Giang Nguyen asks what a man who is a tree portends for democratic reform in Vietnam, Liam Kelley surveys the academic landscape of Asian Studies in Australia and finds is bleak (I vaguely remember being told by my betters that Australia’s future lies in Asia, that this was the Asian Century, and that we all had to prepare for it, but that was in another country, and besides, the policy is dead), and Robert Turnbull writes about politics and patronage in Cambodia – patronage of the arts, that is. Did you know that Hun Sen likes to jot down ideas for poems in classical Khmer meters as he helicopters from one meeting to the next? Neither did I, and it’s fascinating to know; but the more important point is that without patronage of some kind, Cambodian classical performing art will become a tourist ghetto, as has happened in Bali. (Or I believe it has – perhaps the next edition of the Mekong Review will set me right).

And much more. Mekong Review is available on paper at Monument Books (which also has The Sympathizer – $15) and online as pdf.


Victor Fiévet’s Cambodia

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“Cambodian women bathing”

Victor Fiévet was born in 1865 in Roubaix, an industrial town on the Belgian border (department du Nord). It was not a pleasant place:

Roubaix was flooded by migrants from Belgium and the French countryside … [Tenements were thrown up to house them, but, said a visitor in the 1860s,] … “the interior court common to all was a receptacle for sewage, for stinking water which could become the source of pestilence … An air of misery and abandonment reigned throughout.”

(I might point out as an aside that squalid 19th century interior courtyards still exist behind the charming colonial facades of downtown Yangon – if you’re ever there you should go inside and take a look).

Today Roubaix is famous for being the end-point of the annual Paris-Roubaix professional bicycle road race, and back then, with even less to do, the the Roubaixois (is that a word?) coped with the long empty hours as best they could:

Crude birth rates … in the high thirties per thousand … infant mortality [for children under one year] … consistently over 200 [per thousand] … Apparently, Roubaix proletarian families [had lots of babies because] children could also be workers while quite young.

Born as factory fodder, Victor volunteered for military service at age 17 and left the army at age 21 with the rank of sergeant. He immediately joined the Customs service. My source says he joined in Indochina, without telling how he got there – maybe his military service had taken him there, or maybe he joined in France. Anyway, he was clearly wanting to put distance between himself and Roubaix.

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“Tonkinese Woman”. This postcard published (not photographed) by Fievet is one of his most famous, and appears under various titles, notably as “Saigon Prostitute”, although Saigon is not in Tonkin and there’s no evidence she was a prostitute.

His career seems to have been spent entirely in northern Vietnam: He served as Customs Commissioner in posts in Than-Hoa and  Bac-Ninh just outside Hanoi, and retired in 1900 at the age of 35. I have no information on when or where he died, but he seems to have set up in business as a photographer and publisher (of postcards?) and he must have travelled to Cambodia and to Laos at some point. Possibly he even went to China, since on e of his cards says it’s of the Emperor, but postcards, like the Internet, afre not always truthful.

Postcards carrying his work always have the legend “Fievet (Victor), Hanoi (Tonkin) mod. dep. repr. interdite” (“all forms of reproduction are forbidden” – the problems facing photographers in the internet age are not new). Sometimes they’re hand-tinted, as the Tonkinese girl above (the Cambodian girl also appears in a hand-tinted version).

I’ve chosen to illustrate with two female nudes because this is a serious cultural blog and I know my readers are serious people. And sex sells. Fiévet knew that too. And yet there’s very little sexual titillation in French colonial postcards. The Tonkinese girl is the only known example of a full nude, and Cambodian bare breasts are very rare indeed. And yet in North Africa there is ample evidence that humans are mammals. Why? Did a different breed of Frenchman come out to the East? Unlikely. It must have been local culture, or at least that’s my guess. There’s clearly a crying need for a keen sociologist/historian to study this further. But the bulk of Fiévet’s images are sedate, and always instructive.


“Cambodia: Phnom Penh – Favourite dancers of the king of Cambodia”


For the quotes about Roubaix in the 1860s, Robert Wheaton, Family and Sexuality in French History.

For the career of Victor Fiévet, A website called Old Postcards of Indochina – not much there.

For postcard images, catawiki for the Tonkinese nude and the other from a simple google for Fievet  and, a website dealing in old postcards.


Jackie in Cambodia, 1967


Jackie and Prince Sihanouk, driving.

Did you know Jackie Kennedy visited Cambodia in 1967? I sort of did, I mean I’d heard about it, but then I’d forgotten. It didn’t seem so important. Lots of people visited Cambodia, even back in the 60s. It’s normal.

But when you’re the glamorous widow of Jack, nothing is normal.

The 60s – it seems another civilisation. It was. Nothing is the same, all has changed. The Beatles and Bob Dylan, the war in Vietnam, pill-box hats and funny hair. Anyway, when you’re the glamorous widow of Jack, you don’t just go for a holiday in Cambodia. You go for a reason. You get sent. It’s a State visit. (Though this one had private moments).

1967-03-Jackie-07Jackie was sent by the White House to charm Prince Sihanouk. Da Prez wanted out of Vietnam, but first those damn Commies had to be beat, and maybe Sihanouk could help. So jump on that plane, Jackie, with a pillbox hat and a gaga smile, and go charm.

Jackie visited Angkor, of course. To see Angkor was “a lifelong dream,” she told reporters (and folks like Jackie never travel without reporters – read all about it at the estimable devata website).

The apsaras were adorable, their breasts divine. Then to business: charming the prince. Sihanouk was a handful, not easily charmed: he lectured the press for referring to his land as “tiny.” An insult. Almost an incident. But Jackie was more than equal. In Phnom Penh she and Sihanouk fed the royal elephants together. (I really must write elsewhere about the sacred white elephants united Sihanouk and President Nixon, but that’s for another time). They shared jazz together (the prince could have been a great saxophonist had fate not chosen him to be an oriental despot instead), they watched the cute Princess Boupha Devi dance a classic apsara dance, and they went together to Sihanoukville, where they cut the ribbon on Kennedy Road. Unkind souls hinted that this a slight: why wasn’t the road in the capital?” but Sihanouk replied that this was his own city, bearing his own name, and besides. Phnom Penh had no roads left to name.

Unkinder souls have since hinted that Jackie’s visit was actually all about getting Sihanouk to agree to let the Americans bomb eastern Cambodia, which the Viet Cong were using as an R&R area. Rest no longer: more bombs were to be dropped on Cambodia in the next few years than on Germany in the whole of World War II.

But it was a happy time, an innocent time, 1967. In this degenerate age, an age the gods have deserted, you can stay in the Jackie Kennedy Suite at the Independence Hotel in Sihanoukville (don’t ask about the ghosts), and in Phom Penh there’s another at the Raffles Le Royal, where you can sip the femme fatale, a cocktail created in Jackie’s honour, and gaze in wonder at the original cocktail glass with Jackie’s original red lip-prints on the unwashed glass (bloody unhygienic if you ask me, but nobody does).


The King of Fire and the King of Water


Photo of the Fire King from

Sir James Frazer in his monumental, unreadable ethnological masterpiece The Golden Bough (about a dozen volumes – no, I haven’t read it, just this page), tells how the King of Cambodia used to send gifts and letters every year to the Kings of Water and Fire. (That’s the King of Fire up above, though he died in the 80s)

The King of Water had a sacred flower and fruit, with which he could cause a great flood to sweep over the world should he choose, while the King of Fire had a sacred sword which would cause the world to end if he drew it from its sheath.

According to Frazer they lived in the backwoods in seven towers on seven mountains, moving to a new tower each year. When the seven years were up they’d be put to death. The moment the cremation fire was lit all possible successors – the title was hereditary – would run off to the forest to hide, and the first to be found would become the new king.

Possibly (probably) more reliable than Frazer is Joachim Schliesinger, the author of a series of solid-looking books on Southeast Asian tribes. Unfortunately I can’t find out anything about him, but one of the books is called  White Elephants in Thailand and Neighboring Countries. That’s one I’d like to get. Anyway, in his Ethnic Groups of Cambodia Volume 3 he talks a little about the two kings. They do not live in seven towers on seven hills, and they are not executed every seven years, but the King of Fire did (or does) possess a sacred sword which fell from heaven long ago and is now kept hidden.

Also very useful is Oscar Salemink’s The Ethnography of Vietnam’s Central Highlanders (2003). He says that the Vietnamese government doesn’t like the “backward” culture of the Jarai and are trying to stamp it out. The old kings of Water, Air and Fire have all died in recent decades and the authorities aren’t allowing new ones to be installed. Jarai cadres in the Party are pleading with their superiors for the installation ceremonies to be permitted, but although the Vietnamese Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the Kings are classified as superstition, which is forbidden. But things aren’t all black and white, and Salemink’s chapter is fascinating.

Meanwhile, if you visit Siem Reap, you can see a totally vulgarised version put on for tourists at something called the Cambodian Culture Village – but the blurb says, quite accurately, that there seems to be some connection between this Jarai sacred sword and the sword that’s part of the Khmer royal regalia. (The website calls the tribe Phnorng, but they mean Jarai).

 (Also worth reading on the history is this blog, which mentions a book called Kingdom in the Morning Mist, by Gerald Cannon Hickey).